A Beginner's Advice for Beginners
It's clear that I'm new to downhill riding. All you have to do is watch me head down the slopes at the bike park (most likely Launch Bike Park) to know that I've got some learning to do; but since I started this new discipline of riding, a few things have started to stick. And next week, I could completely prove any one of them to be wrong. There's so much expert advice out there for how to ride, and those are fantastic resources, but I think sometimes the experts have forgotten what it's like to be new, awkward, lacking flow, and terrified on a bike. I haven't forgotten those things (yet) -- so right, wrong, or indifferent, here's what the past three months in the saddle have taught me.
Preparation is Key. Riding a new bike in a new place is an amazing experience. To me, that translates into anxiety -- not the bad kind of anxiety, but the kind that leads to you being so excited and moving so quickly that you risk forgetting something critical. I equate this to a situation I encountered in my past life as a fighter pilot -- being so excited for the flight that you forget to arm your ejection seat before takeoff. This critical omission was not only a simple task, it was one of many that carried the risk of certain death. Biking (especially an equipment-intensive discipline like downhill biking) carries the same simplicity and risk. So to avoid not being prepared for a day at the park, make it a habit to check a few systems the night before a ride.
Tires: Check the pressure and the condition. Make sure your tires are within the pressure range that's spec'd on the tire wall. A pinch flat doesn't sound like a big deal until your at 30 mph in the middle of a berm that's the only thing holding your pink body onto the side of a cliff. Tires will occasionally give you a warning that something isn't right. Look for irregularities or bulges in the shape. If you find one, you're most likely in need of some new rubber.
Brakes: At some point, you're going to need them. Why not take a spin down the driveway to make sure they're functioning properly the night before a ride? Twelve inches from that cliff we mentioned earlier is NOT the place for a brake check.
Shocks: Shocks are a foreign concept to most new bikers. You've never had to work on the shocks on your car or motorcycle, so why should you have to check your bike's shocks? Well, by the nature of the much lighter payload (your weight plus your bike's), bike shocks are pretty touchy. Read the manual on your forks and your rear shock. You don't need to be an expert, but you should familiarize yourself with the concepts of gate, rebound, and air pressure -- what they mean and how to play with them on your particular shock. Why is this preparation critical? A poorly set shock might bottom out -- not the end of the world -- but the same poorly set shock can cause some nasty things to happen at some pretty critical moments on a bike (e.g., in the millisecond before take-off on a jump or upon landing).
Bolts: Only a few bolts on your bike need to be set with a specific torque; the bottom bracket and headset immediately come to mind. The others need to be tight. Not finger tight, and not strip-the-wrench -tight, but tight. This includes pedals and seat rail bolts -- two things that will be very apparent if lost mid-ride. Check them every week. If you're not, you're doing it wrong.
Okay, so you've checked all mission-critical systems and are ready to ride. Or are you? Don't forget to take care of your bike's engine: you. As an overweight tobacco user who has broken dozens of bones and REALLY likes donuts and beer, it would be hypocritical for me to offer you health advice. Just make sure you're ready. Only you can judge how capable you are on a bike while hungover or sick.
So now you're ready to ride...
Learn to Get Comfy Leaning Back. A common mistake that new riders make is not shifting your weight to the back of the bicycle on steep downhill sections. To a certain extent, your downhill bike's geometry does you a favor by forcing you into a rear-ward leaning position, but you can do more. When approaching steep pitches, extend your arms (but for God's sake don't lock your elbows), force your ass over the back wheel, and stay low so that the saddle looks like it could hit you right in the abs or in that fat mass you call a belly. This shifts you and the bike's center of gravity back and will help you navigate the section without going over the handlebars. Once you figure out what a good position is for you, you won't really need to think about it anymore. You'll start to feel the front wheel drop and your body will just naturally do it.
Stop and Observe. The absolute best way to get better is to watch someone else. Maybe they'll pin a drop, maybe they'll case a landing, or maybe they'll provide you with an idea for a better line. Raging on the mountain is great, and there are lessons to be learned there, but starting off with the demo-then-do mentality will win the day. Find someone to ride with who a) knows the trails you're on and b) is a better rider than you. Riding with people of your own skill level is also a must. What's learned by one can be learned by all -- in real time.
Don't Ride Over Your Head. The scenario is this: You have a great day at the bike park. You've stroked your own ego and kept yourself from taking a dirt bath all day, but you're getting tired and decide to take a rest. You finish a cold refreshment and decide to take "one more run". These are famous last words for a reason. Call it superstition, but there's a correlation between late-day runs and injuries. You're tired but confident. You've cooked up the perfect storm for a nasty combination. An infinite number of variations of this scenario exist -- maybe someone else talks you into a run or a drop that you're not ready for -- but they can all lead to visits to the emergency room. But like any word of caution in sports like this, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt; risk is an inherent part of downhill riding. It's part of what drew you to the sport in the first place. Enjoy taking the risks, just learn to calculate your risks and trust the hair on the back of your neck.
Speed is Your Friend. So after that last paragraph, you might be thinking that I'm advocating a super-conservative approach to riding. I guess in some ways, I am, but in others, you just have to drop the hammer to get the full experience. One of those ways is speed. Coming from a cross-country background, speed was my friend because it meant I go farther. In downhill, speed is your friend because it makes your bike work for you. Take a look at some youtube clips of racers; you'll see that the riders that plow through the rock garden (damn, they make it look easy) don't fall as often. Yes, they're experts, and they're choosing the right lines, but compare them to the riders who slow-crawl through the rock garden. These riders might make it through unscathed, but you can bet your ass that they're working harder to do so. A reduced speed gives your wheels the "time" to find the nooks and crannies that can send you over the bars. More speed means more momentum (P=m*v, right?), and more momentum can mean better flow. Outside of the rock garden, speed is still your friend. Much like flying a fighter jet -- speed can be a great weapon, but only when used appropriately. The real results come along with the wisdom of when to push the throttle to the stops and when to bleed off a few knots for a tight turn.
So you've gone for a ride. Odds are, you're scraped and bruised, but you've had a hell of a day. You're loving it. So, it's time to pack up and head home. Or is it?
Get Involved. If you live near a mountain, ask about helping out with trail building or supporting events. Bike parks usually operate on a very tight budget and usually have a group of faithful volunteers who go out and clear trails, design new ones, or add features to existing routes -- it behooves you to join the crew a few times. You'll meet people, get more involved in the community, and you will learn every nook and cranny of those trails. You'll see routes and lines you've never seen before. You'll hear the other trail crew talking about their own unique approach to a particular trail or section. And you'll have the personal satisfaction of knowing that you've made your mark on your favorite park. So, pack up your tools and cooler of beer and hit the mountain on an off-night. It's hard work, but worth the effort.
Like I said, these are just the high points. I'm sure there are critical lessons that have innocently been omitted, and there's an equal chance that other riders will find these points to be useless. They're just what's worked for me so far. Either way, if you're out riding, you're doing something right.